Will Big Tobacco's Former Bagman Really Be the Next Speaker?
Rep. John Boehner favors banking and tobacco lobbyists over voters
There is nothing fresh or surprising about Rep. John
Boehner, R-Ohio, the would-be speaker, a figure so closely associated with
corporate special interests that he looks, sounds and behaves exactly like a
lobbyist. He golfs, drinks, smokes and maintains an unusually bronzed
complexion thanks to company jets that whisk him away to his favorite Florida
resorts. He seems as if he could have stepped straight out of Thank You for Smoking, Christopher
Buckley's classic spoof of Washington's cynical, morally empty K Street.
Smoking and K Street, of course, evoke the memory of
Boehner's first big moment in national politics almost 15 years ago, when he
performed a cameo as the tobacco industry's bagman. Back then, ascending the
leadership ladder as chairman of the House Republican Conference, he was
spotted handing out checks from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company on
the House floor. This spectacle of corruption was so blatant that even some
members of Congress were outraged and demanded that he stop.
Following a blast of bad publicity, he apologized,
sort of. "I thought: 'Yeah, I can imagine why somebody would be upset. It
sure doesn't look good.' It's not an excuse, but the floor is the only place
you get to see your colleagues," he told the Associated Press. "It
was a matter of convenience. You make a mistake, admit it and go on. I just
feel bad about it."
Boehner’s Profitable Relationships With
Of course, he didn’t feel bad enough to change his
convenient, highly profitable relationships with lobbyists and their clients.
Yet while other Republicans became notorious for their political
promiscuity—and sometimes paid a heavy price—Boehner somehow escaped censure.
His fellow Ohioan and former House colleague Bob Ney went to prison as a
casualty of the corruption scandal that sank super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, but
Boehner actually received more money from the Abramoff operation than Ney. Tom
DeLay, the former House majority leader, was renowned for his prowess in
squeezing money from lobbyists, but Boehner raised more money than "the
Hammer" did during a critical period in 2006. He even rented a Capitol
Hill apartment from a lobbyist who had been hired to influence him—a blatant
conflict of interest that the House Ethics Committee somehow failed to notice
under Republican control.
When his party held the majority, Boehner chaired
the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which sounds innocuous but
attracts lobbyists like a cow pie draws flies. Overseeing a broad array of
issues, from the minimum wage to student loans, he made the most of their
interest in his legislation. He achieved a kind of masterpiece with the passage
of a bill that favored the private student loan industry over direct government
lending—at an estimated cost to taxpayers of 9 cents on the dollar. Students,
families and taxpayers lost in that deal, but Boehner's banker pals made out
like ... bankers. Over the past two decades, he has collected more than
$120,000 from Sallie Mae, the mammoth student loan outfit—and enjoyed several
trips to Florida golf destinations in the Sallie Mae corporate jet.
Boehner's career is a litany of such pay-for-play scams, which is what passes for achievement in his world. That the Republican caucus would elect him as its leader reveals the stale reality behind the populist rhetoric. Every Republican congressional candidate represents a vote to elect Speaker Boehner—and to restore the same old policies and attitudes that led to a ruinous decade of misrule.